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What we can learn from the decline of the Ottoman Empire

As in China, the forces of conservatism were too great

By on Friday, 18 March 2011

A watercolour by Count Amedeo Preziosi: past splendours exert a powerful hold

A watercolour by Count Amedeo Preziosi: past splendours exert a powerful hold

The question of why the Ottoman Empire declined is perhaps not the most burning topic of the moment, but, when you consider that we live in a declining country ourselves, we might be able to learn a few things from the example of the Sick Man of Europe.

One of the most enlightening books on the subject, as well as being a thumping good read, is Caroline Finkel’s Osman’s Dream. She points out towards the end of the book that Mustafa Kemal Atatȕrk, the founder of modern Turkey (there is an excellent and readable biography by Lord Kinross, was just that – the founder of a completely new nation, or one that tried to be completely new – rather than the reformer of an old one. Ataturk effectively buried the Ottoman Empire, a multinational empire that embraced many peoples, and replaced it with a single ethnic state.

However, before Kemal and Kemalism there were numerous attempts to try and bring the Empire into the modern age, the most significant of which was the Tanzimat (“Reorganisation”) movement inaugurated by Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839) which insisted on European dress and European-style laws – many of the things that Kemal himself was later to drive through. But Mahmud II and his successor Abdulmecit I (1839-1861) failed to save the Empire, and never did for Turkey what Frederick the Great did for Prussia.

Why not? As in China, the forces of conservatism were too great. Mahmud II did manage to get rid of the Janissaries and institute a modern army, but that particular reform proved to be traumatic. The Janissaries, once the most feared soldiers in the world, had to be forcibly dissolved, and thousands were killed in the process. This event was cheerfully dubbed “The Auspicious Incident” but it involved the Sultan’s artillery shelling the barracks of his own troops in Istanbul, and widespread revolts in the provinces. If that one particular reform was so hard, imagine what every other reform must have been like. Adopting European dress was easy enough; changing hearts and minds almost impossible.

And most Ottoman Turks would have resisted change sure in the knowledge that they were defending one of the most successful polities in the history of the world. To defend the heritage of Suleiman the Magnificent against some moderniser must have seemed a battle worth fighting. Think of the images of Ottoman life that have delighted us all so long, such as the pictures of Count Amedeo Preziosi. To destroy so much beauty would have been heart-breaking. No one likes to turn their back on history. If Kemal did, he did so in the wake of the catastrophic defeat in the First World War. It was that that destroyed Osman’s dream. Until then Osman’s dream had been believable and worth dying for.

No one likes change, and on the whole rightly so, as there is never a guarantee that change is going to work, is there? “The Auspicious Incident” probably hastened the decline of the Empire. Even now attempts at change, such as those once proposed by this man or even this man cannot be guaranteed to work. Past splendours exert their powerful hold over us all.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe the great and good who preside over our own moth-eaten “cool Britannia” should meditate on the meaning the beatitude “Blessed are the humble for they will inherit the earth” instead of their ridiculous pretensions.

  • Michael

    I’m sorry, but all I take from this article is the suspicion that Fr. Alexander would be better off writing for the Huffington Post than for a Catholic news outlet.

    I’m so achingly TIRED of these liberal infiltrators who have snuck into the Church clearly intent on dragging one of the last bastions of decency in the western world down to the same “progressive” level of decay as the rest of our society.

    Father, the Chinese are COMMUNIST. Not “Conservative”. Pope John Paul II was a conservative. Would you place him in the same ideological basket as the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party? Well, I’ll assume yes, as you just did.

    The Catholic Church is NOT going to fall to your leftist whimperings, no matter how veiled.

  • pc

    Sounds from over here like your politicals in power are shelling your most fear military/ships into oblivion as we speak. The purge of the Armenians, practicing Christians, seems to be repeating itself as well.

  • Alexander

    When I mentioned China, I had the failure of the reforms initiated by the Emperor of Glorious Succession who was frustrated by a powerful coalition of vested interests led by his stepmother the Dowager Empress. This was long before the Communists came to power….. I do assure you that I am not now, not have ever been, a fellow traveller!

  • Anonymous

    If all Sultans had been like Mohammed the Conqueror & Suleiman the Magnificent, Europe would have been finished. It would be gppd to see more awareness on Catholic sites that there is more to the 16th century than (on the side) the struggle with Protestantism, and (on the other) the Battle of Lepanto. Turkey deserves far moreattention than it seems to get.

    To read this article is to be reminded of the reforms of Peter the Great in Russia, which was probably no less alien to the Catholic & Protestant West than the Empire of the Grand Turk.

  • Rich Leonardi

    Perhaps I’ve come to the wrong place. Is this the Catholic Herald or the op ed page of the Guardian?

  • jorge

    But why did you put Obama as a “reformer”, meaning that it would be good for his agenda to succeed?

    The man is the most extremist pro-abortion president of the USA I have ever heard of.

    He even managed to vote against the born alive infant protection act!

    Look. “Regular” abortion is already a heinous atrocity. It is qualified murder – not only a person is killed with premeditation, but the victim is completely innocent and completely defenseless.
    But some people have allowed extreme ideological blindness, fueled by acid extreme-feminist propaganda, to convince them that abortion is an individual “choice”, so that only the woman can determine if it is right or wrong. They say the baby is part of the womans body.

    But even with this extreme ideological blindness, how can one defend letting a born baby die?